How to Start an Essay

how to start an essay
  • Last Edited: May 16, 2017

For many students, the biggest challenge they face is how to start an essay.  This should come as no surprise, since the introduction to your essay is probably the most important part of any writing project.  It sets the tone for the reader, introduces them to your topic, lets them know what type of essay they will be reading, and also lets them know if the essay will be interesting or a chore to read.  In addition, your introduction needs to manage to do all of this while being interesting and concise.  That is why we quizzed our best writers to ask them for their top tips on “How to Start an Essay.”

Tips to Starting an Essay

Be “You” in Your Writing

We think that one of the reasons so many students have a difficult time starting their writing assignments is that they are trying to fit their own personal style into a preset mold.  While we are going to give you some wonderful tips for how to rise to the challenge of writing a great introduction for your essay, remember that these tips are here to help you find your voice.

Do Not Start by Writing Your Introduction

While your introduction will be the first thing that the reader encounters when reading your essay, it probably should not be the first thing that you write.  Developing the body of the essay first allows you to develop an understanding of your topic, how you established any claims you intend to make in your introduction, and the tone that you decided to take in your writing.  You want your introduction to reflect all of these aspects, therefore it is often best to wait and write your introduction after you have finished writing your body paragraphs.  Skipping to the body paragraphs, which are often easier to write, can also help you deal with any writer’s block that you may be facing as you begin to work on your essay.  So, if you are having a problem deciding how to start your essay, save the first for last and begin by working on the body of the essay.

In fact, the relationship between the first and last paragraphs to your essay is an important one to consider if you are having a difficult time getting started.  Write the body of your essay and then write your conclusion paragraph.  The same information that you felt necessary to include in your conclusion paragraph should probably appear somewhere in the introduction of your essay.  That is because the conclusion and the introduction are mirror sections.  While your introduction prepares the reader for the essay, the conclusion reminds the reader of the points you have introduced and reinforces any positions that you took in the body of the essay.  Therefore, your conclusion paragraph can serve as a great starting point for your introductory paragraph.

Outline Your Paper Before You Begin Writing

While you do not have to start writing your paper with the introduction, you do want to lay a foundation for your paper before you start writing.  We strongly suggest writing an outline before you tackle the body of your paper.  Your outline can be a formal outline or it can be a few words or phrases that help you organize your thoughts into information for your essay.  Whatever format you choose for your outline, you can refer back to it when writing your introductory paragraph, because if you are writing in a technical or academic style, the introductory paragraph should serve as a sort of outline for the body of your paper.  You can easily check to see if it does by comparing the format of your introductory paragraph to the format of your outline.  If they do not match, then look through your paper to see if you deviated from your outline or whether you have omitted something you need to include in your introductory paragraph.

Look for an Essay Hook

You’ve probably heard people talk about the hook sentence, but you may not know what it does.   The job of a hook sentence is to encourage the reader to continue reading, so it needs to somehow pique the reader’s curiosity, usually by leading the reader to ask a question about the topic.   Literature is full of really amazing hook sentences that reach out and grab ahold of the reader, but one of our personal favorites is: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”[i]  As soon as we read this line, we are full of questions about this Eustace Clarence Scrubb, his terrible name, and what he could have done to deserve it.  For an academic essay, you may not be able to develop a hook sentence quite as compelling as C.S. Lewis did, but you can come up with one that leaves the reader with the kind of questions that encourage them to continue reading to get the answers.

There are several ways to grab the reader’s attention.  You can begin with a memorable line, find an interesting quote, present an interesting statistic or fact, say something startling, or ask the reader to contemplate a question.  For non-academic writing, when the audience is not a captive one, the hook sentence is critically important, because a disinterested reader is not likely to continue beyond the first few sentences of an essay.  In academic writing, you may have a captive audience, but you still want the reader to feel engaged and interested when reading your work.  For a more detailed exploration of hook sentences, please see our Easy Guide to Writing Amazing Hook Sentences.

Introduce Your Readers to the Body of Your Essay

While the hook grabs the reader’s attention, the job of the next few sentences in your introduction is to give the reader a preview of the content of the essay.  How do you do this?  Well, a great way to start is by explaining how that compelling hook sentence is related to your essay.  You want to spend a sentence or two explaining how the hook is related to the essay, which usually involves taking the narrow focus of a hook sentence and expanding it to encompass your entire topic.  By the end of the third sentence, the reader should know the topic of your essay, though not your thesis sentence, which you will traditionally place at the end of your first paragraph.

In addition to introducing the topic, you want to let the readers know what type of essay they are reading.  Is your essay argumentative, persuasive, expository, narrative, or a compare and contrast essay?  By the middle of your introductory paragraph, the readers should be developing a feel for the type of essay that they are about to read.  Therefore, if you are going to take a position in your essay, begin to take it.  If you are going to compare or contrast things in your essay, begin to compare or contrast them.  You want the first paragraph to serve as a thumbprint guide to the rest of your essay, so do not hesitate to introduce the style of the essay in the first paragraph.

Define the Structure of Your Essay

For most forms of academic writing, you are probably going to be working off of a modified five-paragraph paper structure.  In that structure, your first paragraph is going to serve as a sort of outline for the rest of your paper.  Therefore, go ahead and let your first paragraph show your reader how your essay will function.  Outline the subtopics that you will address in the paper, letting readers know what type of information they will be receiving and the order of that information.

However, keep in mind that the modified five paragraph structure is not appropriate for all forms of essay-writing.  If you are working on a creative fiction essay, you will probably deviate substantially from that formal structure.  In those instances, outlining your essay in your introductory paragraph can do more than have a negative impact on the tone of your writing; it can ruin any surprises or plot twists you intend to introduce.  Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the general rules for a great essay introduction do not apply equally to all types of writing.

Remember That Structure Depends on Essay Type

When you are defining the structure of your essay, you are telling your readers what to expect and should be reinforcing the type of essay that you are writing.  How you do this is going to depend on the type of essay that you are writing.  Even essays with the same topic should have differing structures, depending on the essay type.

Argumentative Essay Introductions Should Outline the Argument

Many academic essays are of the argumentative or persuasive variety.  Assuming that you are tackling your argumentative or persuasive essay in a traditional five paragraph format, then you need to establish three arguments to support your position.  (Of course, shorter or longer essays will mean greater or fewer arguments).  It helps if you think of the essay as a tripod.  Your thesis statement needs to rest on the legs of your tripod.  If you fail to develop any of those legs, then the thesis statement is not supported.  Therefore, in your introductory paragraph, you want to introduce your reader to each of the arguments that will form the legs of your tripod:

Only six of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault ever end up in prison.[ii]  While this number is partially due to low reporting rates, the fact that sexual assault perpetrators are less likely to face incarceration than other violent offenders suggests that society view sexual offenses as somehow different than other violent offenses.  This difference perspective is referred to as rape culture, but many people scoff at the idea that rape culture exists.  However, there are several well-established truths that support the idea that the United States does have a rape culture.  Estimates suggest that, depending on the demographic, between 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime.  Sexual assault victims are often blamed for the assault, whether that blame comes in the form of questioning their clothing or questioning their behavior at the time of victimization.  Finally, even convicted rapists are treated leniently by court systems, which seem more concerned about preserving rapists’ futures than protecting victims or punishing them for their offenses.  Taken together, these aspects of American society make it clear that rape culture is alive and thriving in the United States.   

In our example essay, we open with a startling statistic about sexual assault in America; that is our hook.  Then, we show how the hook is related to the meat of the essay and introduce our topic, which is rape culture.  Then we let the reader know that the essay will be a persuasive or argumentative essay, by acknowledging that some people do not believe that rape culture exists, and then stating that we are going to provide some facts to demonstrate it does.  Each of the color-coded sentences is then a foot for the tripod of facts.  Tripod one is the sexual assault rate experienced by American women.  Tripod two is the treatment victims receive when they report sexual assaults.  Tripod three is the lenient treatment of rapists by the criminal justice system.  Finally, the opening paragraph concludes with the thesis sentence.

Descriptive essay introductions should let the reader know what you will be describing and how you will be describing it.

Descriptive essays paint a picture, so your introduction should let the reader know how you intend to paint that picture.  What are you going to describe in your essay?  What senses are you going to engage to describe it?  Because descriptive essays are usually less technical than other forms of academic writing, you do not need to develop your introduction the same way as the tripod-stand format of an argumentative or persuasive essay introduction.  However, you can use that structure if it is one with which you are comfortable.  Therefore, if you intend to use sight, smell, and sound to paint a picture, then it is perfectly acceptable to foreshadow this for the reader in your introduction:

The smell of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, the ticking whirr of the spinning wheel on The Wheel of Fortune, or the sight of a climbing red rose are each enough to bring to mind my grandparent’s house in the summertime.   

Narrative essay introductions should let the reader know you will be telling a story.

Narrative essays can be fiction or non-fiction, but they are a more creative approach to essays than other formats.  You may choose not to outline your essay for the reader in your introduction, because doing so could compromise any surprises or twists in your essay.  However, you still want to give the reader an idea of what you are writing about.

I was twelve years old the first time I saw a man die.  His name was Mark Johnson.  He was a drug smuggler, and my father was the one who killed him.  However, this story is not really about Mark and how he died, but about the events that led up to that fateful night in the summer of 1994.

Looking at that paragraph, you see an interesting hook sentence.  The next few sentences relate the hook the rest of the essay and give the readers more details.  However, the final sentence of the introductory paragraph lets the reader know that the narrative is not going to focus on the murder of the victim by the writer’s father, but another story that might help explain how those events came to pass.

Expository essay introductions should prepare the reader to be informed.

Most lower-level academic writing focuses on the expository essay.  While most writers agree that the expository essay is the least-interesting type of essay to write, it is a type of writing that recurs in the professional context.  Journalists use a modified form of expository writing to relate facts to their readers.  Technical or scientific writing is also generally expository in format.  Therefore, in your introduction, your job is to tell your reader what you are going to tell them.  It may seem like a repetitive way to approach an essay, but expository essays are a proven way of conveying information to the reader in a concise and effective manner.  One commonly used expository writing assignment is to create a how-to document, and we love to use recipes when we write how-to essays:

The best chocolate cake I have ever tasted has an unexpected ingredient: mayonnaise.  You can make this delicious cake in three easy steps.  First, you collect the ingredients.  Second, you prepare the cake.  Third, you make the icing.  In less than an hour, you can be eating hot and delicious homemade chocolate cake. 

Is this introduction exciting or complicated?  Not particularly.  It does start with an interesting hook; people who are not cooks may not be aware that mayonnaise is often used in baked goods to provide moisture.  The next sentence relates that fact to the body of the essay, which is going to be a description of how to bake the cake.  Then, each of the following sentences lets the reader know how the recipe will be sub-divided into paragraphs.

Conclude with your thesis statement.

In a five-paragraph format, the introductory paragraph is generally going to conclude with a thesis statement.  The thesis statement is a short one-or-two sentence statement that concisely describes the point or goal of your essay.  The thesis statement is more than a statement of the topic; it goes a step further to state why this topic is relevant or to let the reader know your position on the topic.  If you look through the examples above, you will see how the thesis statement not only ensures that the reader knows the topic of the essay, but also that the reader know what type of essay they are reading.  The examples will also show you that not all essay types include a thesis statement.  For example, the narrative essay above does not have a thesis statement in the introductory paragraph.

After you have written your first paragraph, read it along with the rest of your essay.  Does the tone of your introductory paragraph match the tone of the rest of your essay?  This is especially important if you are tackling a creative writing, descriptive essay, or narrative essay assignment.  It can be easy to lose the carefree tone of the body of your essay in an introductory paragraph by making the introductory paragraph too rigid or dry.  So, do not feel like you must conform to the tips that we have provided or to any other writing “rules.”  There is no one right way to write; if you have established a tone and a voice you like in the rest of your essay and your introductory paragraph does not have the same feeling, then change your introductory essay so that it does.

Have someone else read your paper.

Whenever possible, always have another person read over your writing assignments.  This is important because proofreaders can often catch grammar or spelling mistakes that spellcheck misses and can let you know if your introductory paragraph does a good job of introducing your topic.  They can also help you decide if your introductory paragraph is too wordy.  Great introductory paragraphs are concise, but you do not want to be so concise that your reader cannot follow your logical processes or has the wrong kind of questions about what is coming in your essay.

Conclusion

Starting your essay can feel overwhelming, but it does not have to be a challenge.  Remember that you may not want to start at the beginning when you start your essay.  Body paragraphs are often much less challenging to write than the introduction.  In addition, the introduction, which should serve as a preview to the rest of the essay, can be easier to write when you have already written the rest of that essay.  You want to start your work with a hook, but be sure to relate that hook to the rest of your topic.  Then, let your reader know what you are going to discuss, why you are going to discuss it, and how you are going to discuss it.  If you follow these tips, you will finally be able to answer the question of “How to Start an Essay.”

[i] Lewis, C.S.  (1952).  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

[ii] RAINN.  (2017).  Statistics.  Retrieved May 11, 2017 from: https://www.rainn.org/statistics

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